Sometimes you learn so much from the characters in a book, even the bad ones. In Nightwoods, the latest from Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier, the people that inhabit the pages crackle with life. As a master craftsman, Frazier gives just enough background information on each one fleshing them out and making them real. The novel revolves not so much around plot as in personality studies, observations on life and rhapsodic images of nature. With phrases like "dread filled the car like floodwater rising," Frazier's high level of perception sets his writing apart making him one of the finest American novelists working today.
He transports the reader to an isolated, deteriorating lodge in the mountains of North Carolina circa the early 1960s. We find Luce, a young woman turned virtual hermit, as the caretaker of the abandoned building. Into her lap are dropped two children, her niece Delores and nephew, Frank, the twins of her late sister who was murdered by her husband, Bud. The children were abused by Bud and witnessed him killing their mother. Since these horrific events, they've become wild - slaughtering chickens with their bare hands - yet refusing to speak. Little do they know that Bud has followed them, waiting for the opportunity to silence them forever.
While stressing respect for the past and the land, the novel delves into the dual themes of fire and blood. The children are obsessively drawn to the lure of an open flame. They become pyromaniacs setting fire to whatever lies in their path, even burning down a house. They seek solace in these desperate acts. As stated in the book, "You can't control everything that happens. All you control is your mind. Make it like the lake on a still day. Don't react any more than you can help, not to outsiders. Trust only the two of you all the way. Hoard up your love for each other and state your rage by way of things that want to burn."
Their predator, Bud, on the other hand, sees things in terms of blood. He repeatedly cuts himself with his shark tooth necklace drawing the red liquid to the surface. He attacks Luce's boyfriend, Stubblefield, with a knife in a barroom bathroom brawl leaving the floor saturated. His view on life revolves around violence. His thoughts include, "Blood mattered above all else, the sacred shedding of it. The rest of Christ's life - his actions, his pithy sayings, his love - became incidental compared to the dark artery offering that covered the globe."
Yet, he has a keen insight on life. In a telling passage, he states, "Pleasers never get paid back a fraction commensurate with their effort. Which goes along with one of the main rules in life. Which, unfortunately, has two parts. The a is, You got to get paid. A fine idea if it stopped right there. But the cruel b part is, You got to pay."
Luce also had her own way of looking at one's financial climate. An excerpt relates, "You start wanting things too much and you need more and more money. She said she tried as much as possible to live free from the bad idea of money. Otherwise, you took a job, you inevitably sold your time to someone who valued it lowly. Luce, however, valued her time highly. Luce had it all figured out. Live out of sight from the bullshit of everyday commerce. Use money as little as possible."
She is described as being naturally beautiful, yet she cuts her own hair. Unable to buy the latest fashions she sticks to a uniform of pedal pushers and button down shirts. Although a former beauty pageant contestant, she flouted the rules by eating a candy bar while walking down the poolside catwalk. She doesn't crave pampering, she seeks her fulfillment in the beauty surrounding her. The woods, the forest creatures, the lake, the mountains. She enjoys how her isolation tunes everything else out allowing her to focus on the weather, the change in seasons, the twinkling lights of the town at night with the comforting hum of the radio in the background.
She is a determined loner, but the underlying reason is touchingly revealed in a conversation she has with Stubblefield. He is a man who offers a spring of understanding, compassion and kindness to her battered soul and those of the children. He's a stand-up guy who knows that they all deserve more out of life and he is determined to give it to them. He doesn't walk away no matter how strange the children act or how many times Luce tries to shut him out. He's their rock in the midst of chaos.
Frazier leaves the conclusion of the novel open-ended. He doesn't settle things one way or the other. The ultimate fate is yet to be decided. Has the danger passed? Has it moved on? Will it be back? All that's certain is that Luce and Stubblefield will keep on doing the best they can for the children as they continue to form their own type of family unit. The only thing that's for sure is, in Frazier's words, "the landscape, which does not punish or reward but cleanses all bones equally."
Overall, a few life lessons are gleaned from a cast of well-drawn characters.
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is available for $26.00 at Amazon.com.
Review copy provided by Valley Community Library.